Will roomier new United planes cure cabin fever?
There's nothing like kicking the tires on something that's 56 feet tall, has a wingspan of 212 feet and weighs about 200 metric tons.
And as United Airlines employees posed for photos next to behemoth Rolls-Royce-crafted engines, they got downright giddy during a recent sneak peek of the Airbus A350 XWB at O'Hare.
United is buying 35 A350-1000 jets, deliverable in 2018. They seat 366 and will typically handle trans-Pacific trips to destinations such as Hong Kong.
Naturally, the first thing economy passengers on a long flight want to know is: How's the legroom and seat size?
XWB stands for extra wide body, and Airbus is promising more for posteriors with 18-inch seats compared to the more prevalent 17-inch versions.
There is also additional space to stretch your legs.
Airbus executives shrugged at comparisons to Boeing's Dreamliner, saying the newbie is closer to a 777, but the A350-900 I saw at O'Hare International Airport has comparable bells and whistles.
Twelve-inch screens in economy anchor the "fourth-generation" in-flight entertainment system, Airbus promises. But does that mean Wi-Fi and outlets to plug in?
A definite yes on Wi-Fi, United spokesman Charles Hobart promised, but the airline's a little fuzzy on the outlet situation.
The questions continue with a few other items dear to travelers' hearts.
I can tell you that there are 68 turbine blades on the Trent XWB engines made by Rolls-Royce, and a single one generates 800 horsepower -- equal to a Formula 1 racing car.
But exactly how many more inches your legs can stretch out compared to 777s? Not yet determined.
I can tell you the A350 airframe is constructed of more than 70 percent advanced materials with 53 percent carbon fiber-reinforced polymer.
But how much is airfare and what are the O'Hare routes? Not yet determined.
What else? The A350 offers larger storage compartments allowing business class passengers to squeeze in two of those ubiquitous roller bags. For the rest of us in economy, yes, the storage compartments are bigger, but expect Darwinian principles to apply.
"Most airlines would likely not allow two rollaboards for an economy class passenger," Airbus spokeswoman Mary Anne Greczyn said.
And if you're seated next to a serial cougher on a flight to Hong Kong, the A350 offers a circulation system to change the cabin air every two to three minutes and prevent drafts.
The new fleet "enables us to run a more efficient operation," Hobart said. "There's less of a fuel burn, and it has all the great amenities customers value."
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the funky, curvaceous wings.
The Star Trek-type feature is "designed to adapt during the flight, morphing while airborne, changing their flight for maximum aerodynamic efficiency," an Airbus brochure enthuses.
Test pilot Jean Michel Roy said the Toulouse-based French company has "introduced a lot of innovations to improve safety." Those include an airport navigation system to help with low visibility and a runway overrun protection system.
As for noise, the A350 "is a very quiet aircraft, inside and outside," Airbus interiors marketing manager Corrin Higgs said.
The improvements range from better designs for nacelles that house the engines to tweaks to the number of fan blades and spacing. As compared to a noisy turbojet where thrust is achieved by moving a small mass of air quickly, a new design on the A350 moves a large mass of air slowly, equaling a quieter engine, Rolls-Royce spokesman Joel Reuter said.
That's good news, although I suspect suburban residents plagued by jet noise will believe it when they hear it.
With a wingspan of 212 feet, will the new planes have a problem with gate space at O'Hare?
Nope, said Hobart, noting that United has plenty of room for aircraft this size.
"I like it," said United pilot Chuck Buescher Jr., who stopped by before a flight to Paris. He's used to 777s, but flying the new Airbus "has always been my goal."
Watch out for traffic in Waukegan Aug. 5 when Lake County will close Lewis Avenue between York House Road and Sunset Avenue from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Detours will be posted.